Writer as Reader
Rita Dove's The Darker Face of the Earth is a recounting of the Oedipus drama, framed in terms of the African-American experience of slavery. It is a poet's reading of Oedipus the King, resonating with the beauty and richness of the ancient images and the harrowing dynamics of the mythic plot. Like the original, Dove's play draws on a transcendent power, a dynamic that is at once erotic, compassionate, and creative. The play as a whole, set on a pre-Civil War plantation near Charleston, South Carolina, is a reading not only of the Oedipus myth but also and in particular of the reality of slavery in the American past. In looking at that history, and at those scars that continue to "write" the circumstances of the present, this reading is endowed with both compassion and clearheaded responsibility to face and recognize the horrors as well as the richness implicit in the past.
The play received its premiere production in July 1996 under the direction of Ricardo Khan at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.  As a play authored by a black woman, its very presentation raises the question of what it means to adapt and restage, and thus reread, classics of the Western tradition for today's audiences. It remains to be seen how this work will be positioned in the "great racial dilemma" (Cruse 49)--whether to underscore the "African" or the "American" in the African-American literary tradition. Clearly Dove's work reflects what Henry Louis Gates, Jr., identifies as a "two-toned heritage," one which, while it "revise[s] texts in the Western tradition,[ldots] [does] so 'authentically,' with a black difference [ldots] based on the black vernacular" (Signifying xxii-xxiii). 
Examples of reading recur within The Darker Face of the Earth, with the result that the subject of reading becomes a central thematic concern of the drama. From the songs and stories of the slave community to Yoruba invocations of orisha worship, from the "Book of Redemption" sworn on by the slave conspirators to dusty tomes of astronomy and astrology, "texts" and their readings are liberally woven into the fabric of the play. In this essay I will explore the implications of The Darker Face of the Earth as a reading and as a commentary on the act of reading. In doing so I will maintain that Dove's play not only listens to, responds to, and interprets the originals, but also is itself an example of the essential creativity of the reading act.
In a critical scene (1.8) in which Amalia, the plantation mistress, first interviews Augustus, her newly purchased slave, as many as seven distinct references are made to texts and reading.
Indeed the scene is structured sequentially, moving from one such reading event to the next. First, (1) the protagonists listen as the slaves in the fields sing "the sorrow songs," for which, as Augustus explains, "they don't need a psalm book" (2nd ed. 82).  In contrast, (2) Augustus confirms his own literacy, listing the books of his formative education: "Milton. The Bible. / And the Tales of the Greeks" (83). (3) The book Amalia holds and has been reading, one of those "Tales of the Greeks"--in translation, as she emphasizes--becomes the focal point of a verbal contest between the two. (4) Amalia recounts a recent event, known to her via both newspaper and word of mouth accounts, of an uprising on the slave ship Amistad. In her telling Amalia revises the history, adapting it to suit her present purposes (86-87). In response, (5) Augustus tells his own story of a slave uprising (89-90). This is not a current events item or an account with any claim to historical accuracy, but rather an almost mythologica l, cautionary sort of tale, clearly constructed to move the listener/reader's heart and teach a lesson. Meanwhile, (6) Louis, Amalia's husband, is heard in his room above, "reading" the night sky for portents (87-88).
The scene concludes with Amalia and Augustus embracing. But before this embrace, Augustus turns poetical. (7) Reading an imaginary past, he pictures for Amalia the occasion of his own conception:
One soft spring night
when the pear blossoms
cast their pale faces
on the darker face of the earth,
Massa stood up from the porch swing
and said to himself, "I think
I'll make me another bright-eyed pick-aninny."
Then he stretched and headed
for my mother's cabin. (92)
Thus, through verbal imagery Augustus creates a fictionalized rendition of his own life. That this account is in contradiction to the actual circumstances of his birth will become apparent as the drama unfolds. For although Augustus is indeed a child born of the union of white slave owner and a black slave, it is a union of love, not coercion, and furthermore it is his mother not his father who is white; his father rather than his mother, black. Notwithstanding the deep irony of his error, Augustus's "tale" is fraught with tragic beauty and a poetic truth.
The sequence of readings in this scene illustrates the multiple convergences of reading with writing--a progression through oral performance, literacy, translation, adaptation, fable making, decoding of a sign system, and, finally, a reading of past history in present poetry. Through these models the scene raises the question of reading and presages the path of the drama itself, as a search for an authentic and creative way to read.
Toni Morrison, in her preface to Playing in the Dark, discusses such an act, a writer's way of reading. She observes that for a writer "reading and writing are not all that distinct[ldots]" and describes reading as a dynamic state which demands that the reader/writer hold her- or himself "alert and ready for unaccountable beauty, for the intricateness or simple elegance of the [ldots] imagination, for the world that imagination evokes" (xi). In this description Morrison makes reading more writerly, a creative as well as a responsive act, while writing takes on the sort of receptivity ordinarily associated with reading. Morrison is here using the term writing to denote that artistic act of creation--what she as a writer does which distinguishes her in her authorial role--not, as it has been used in critical theory (as l'ecriture), to emphasize a contrast with speaking.  A distinction of this former sort, between authors and readers, is very deeply ingrained in our culture's sense of literacy. Indeed our mo del of humanistic education is precisely an ongoing reading and interpretation of written texts authored by those special individuals called writers. For Toni Morrison, however, in this case it is not the reader-writer dichotomy but the reader/writer identity that merits attention. As she goes on to say, "Writing and reading" together "mean being aware of the writer's notions of risk and safety, the serene achievement of, or sweaty fight for, meaning and respons-ability" (xi). Thus this singular process, the writerly act of reading, involves not only awareness, sensitivity, and receptivity, but also active grappling, "achievement," and "responsibility," a term which suggest both the capacity to render response and the moral obligation to do so.
Adapter as Go-Between
Nowhere is the convergence of the reading and the authorial role more evident and more publicly displayed than in dramatic production. Every performance which works from a scripted drama is of course both a reading of that play (literally, and as an interpretation) and a writing or a new act of creativity. Theatre artists (actors, director, designers) are all, in their own rights, both readers and creative artists who will "write" an ongoing series of performances. It is in this sense that performance is by its very nature double-voiced. If the script is, like The Darker Face of the Earth, a revisiting of an old text, then the playwright as well is positioned as both reader/interpreter of the prior text and writer/creator of a new drama. Such a dialogic positioning suggests the power of literary parody, in the sense revealed by Mikhail Bakhtin in his analysis of discourse in the novel.  Recent theorists have extended Bakhtin's analysis to other literary and non-literary art forms. Linda Hutcheon, for examp le, identifies parody with a "postmodernism" which "rummag[es] through the image reserves of the past" and thereby, "through a double process of installing and ironizing [ldots] signals how present representations come from past ones and what ideological consequences derive from both continuity and difference" (93). In looking self-consciously to a prior text the playwright as adapter occupies a similar territory, moving from the language and myth of the distant object (the "alien word" in Bakhtin's terms) to his or her own discourse, and through that discourse to another "alien word," the anticipated response of an audience or reader. In Dove's play such polyglossia is redoubled: The black writer moves from the language of the European classic, substituting and reorganizing its elements, employing the African American vernacular trope of capping. This mode of discourse is, according to Henry Louis Gates, Jr., "the black [ldots] equivalent of metalepsis," the rhetorical trope in which one figurative word is s ubstituted for another (Signifying 87). For Gates, capping involves the "revision" of a "received trope" by means of a rearrangement of the original pattern (145). 
I will return below to explore the degree to which The Darker Face of the Earth disturbs, parodies, or "caps" upon the Greek text. The question to which I turn now is to what degree and in what way Dove's play reads Oedipus, in a less equivocal sense. A drama such as The Darker Face of the Earth will be expected by its audiences to translate or stand as a "go-between," mediating the distances separating the original text from those audiences.  In discussing our tradition of theatrical revival, Elinor Shaffer suggests that any such adaptation is part of a hermeneutic tradition which "permits the clarification of obscurities and distortions that arise through the aging of a statement made in the past and ensures the preservation of the text." This tradition "aims at reintegrating a sacred, canonical, or centrally significant text into the present time, at reformulating it so that it can still be seen as valid by a new generation" (121). Indeed, no response to successful revivals or adaptations of classic pl ays is more typical of contemporary critics and audience members than surprise and pleasure at the relevance of the message, the currency of the issues raised.  The virtue of this sort of interpretation, then, is an attentive and responsive reading of the original text and a skillful rephrasing in vocabulary appropriate to new audiences and readers.
The Darker Face of the Earth, both in its plot line and in the character of its hero, certainly serves this hermeneutic role, following Sophocles' rendition of the myth in broad strokes.  Augustus, an offspring of the plantation mistress and one of the plantation slaves, is sent away at birth and believed dead. Twenty years later, his identity unknown both to himself and to those on the plantation, he returns. The plantation to which he returns lies under a double affliction: The public scourge of slavery is reduplicated in a private curse whose cause lies shrouded in mystery. Like Oedipus, Augustus is a charismatic and brilliant leader, viewed by himself and others as a savior to his people. While Oedipus outwits the Sphinx, meeting the mysterious and nonrational powers of her curse with a direct and rational answer to the riddle, Augustus cuts through the superstitions and fears of his people with the scorn of clearheaded logic. He dismisses the Christian worshippers and their "Sunday shout" with disdai n: "Listen / to them sing! / What kind of god preaches such misery?" (58). And he gives equally short shrift to the cryptic warnings and cant of the "voodon woman":
Women like her, hah!
They get a chill one morning,
Hear an owl or two, and snap!-
they've received their "powers"!
Then they collect a few old bones,
Dry some herbs, and they're in business. (60)
As for slavery, Augustus has seen another world beyond the plantation where freedom is an option. He readily joins the conspirators in their righteous scheme of revolt, affirming with them a view in which right and wrong are more sharply and clearly defined than black and white:
All those who are not with us are against us, blacks as well as whites.[ldots]
Gird your loins with vengeance, strap on the shining sword of freedom! (73)
Thus, like Oedipus, Augustus, as the seeming outsider, is able to fathom the entrammeling web of the double curse which "lies over the land," and cut boldly through its snares. But, also like his Greek predecessor, Augustus little knows that the web has in truth entangled him from his birth. Hardly an outsider, he is deeply, even paradigmatically, ensnared in its folds. The final scene of the play brings the revelation of Augustus's identity and the horror of his actions to light. And though he does not literally blind himself in response, no audience will miss the irony of that moment, reminiscent of the Greek original, in which spiritual insight dawns, just as more ordinary vision recedes.
The Greek dramatists often revisited myths which chronicle the horror of great houses "hunted and thrown by Destiny" (Spengler 20). While the concept of destiny or fate (moira) came to signify an ominous power, personified as "the Fates" to whom even the Olympians were subject, moira in its more original sense denotes simply the "lot, portion, share which falls to one" in the distribution of booty, in inheritance, etc. (Liddell and Scott 1141). A distinction between two such versions of fate runs through Sophocles' Oedipus the King. According to Pietro Pucci, these two concepts as they arise in the drama "evoke two different modes of narrative, each proceeding with its own set of images, figures, and metaphysical underpinnings" (13). First there is fate in the form of Oedipus's destiny or his ultimate end (telos). This is Fate with a capital "F," so to speak, on the side of the divine law and beyond human ken. Its spokesperson in the play is Apollo's priest, the seer Teiresias, "in whom alone of mankind trut h is native." The truth which Teiresias serves is a sacred truth; the fate he sees concerns "things not to be spoken, / things of the heavens" (22). But there is another version of fate at work in the play, one that concerns only the random events of this world. This is fate as chance (tukhe), fate on the side of material, of the banal. It is present in Oedipus's chance meeting with a drunken man who calls him bastard, his encounter with an irascible stranger at the crossroads, his arriving in Thebes at the moment when the Sphinx's riddle has so afflicted the land. This fate is likewise beyond human reason, not because it is above but because it is below human comprehension. Oedipus ultimately discovers that this second fate is subsumed by the first. What has appeared all along as mere chance has been in reality the working out of his terrible Destiny.
In The Darker Face of the Earth fate is likewise manifest in two similarly distinct forms. The first speech of the play, Phebe's laughing commentary on events, ends with a short song which suggests the more commonplace version of fate: "Stepped on a pin, the pin bent, / and that's the way the story went" (13). Here fate, as one's chance "lot," is shrugged off with the healthy disdain of a young girl. But at other times this version of fate is met by less cheerful resignation, as in the slaves' weary refrain "No way out, gotta keep on-- / No way but to see it through" (61). In this case the fate, the moira, of the people on the Jennings plantation is slavery itself, a condition that creates not only endless hard labor but also confusion, horror, and tragedy. That the play draws this parallel between slavery and fate (as chance) does not at all imply a complete identification. It is an identification of effect, not of cause. For, as opposed to invoking chance as the cause of slavery, the drama clearly exposes the responsibility of white slave holders and slave traders for that horror. Nevertheless, the fact of slavery remains for the characters in the play an unassailable reality. Moreover, even today, as a fact of history, slavery, the "unspeakable horror and terror of the black past" (Gates, Loose Canons 146), possesses a power as seemingly irrational, as intransigent as the tukhe afflicting Oedipus and the people of Thebes.
Another more mysterious version of fate soon emerges in this drama as well. The "voodon woman" Scylla who, like Teiresias, is in touch with spiritual verities, proclaims that Augustus's birth has released a powerful, otherworldly "curse":
Bad times a-coming. Bad times
Coming over the hill on mighty horses,
Horses snorting as they galloped
through slave cabin and pillared mansion,
horses whinnying as they trampled
everything in their path.
Like a thin net
The curse settled over the land. (36)
As with the birth of Oedipus, with this event, too, harmony has been shattered and destructive spirits loosed upon the world. And as in Oedipus the King, this net of fate is inextricably related to the more commonplace "lot" of the play's characters. Yet the relationship of the two versions of fate is different in the two plays. Whereas incest and parricide are the foretold destiny of Oedipus, that which causes his tragedy and Jocasta's destruction, here incest and parricide are by-products of the institution of slavery. Slavery is the "curse" that "settled over the land." It is slavery that corrupts human society, causing the tragedy and destroying life.
The Darker Face of the Earth, translating the dynamic of two fates into a modem framework, re-illuminates Oedipus with a revealing difference. At the same time the play translates another significant dynamic of the original, that of the private and the public. In Greek tragedy the effect of the ancient curse on the interworkings of the private and the public realms is a dominant theme. The Darker Face of the Earth explores an analogous theme and brings it into a more contemporary context. In the private horror of the Greek story Oedipus, by his incest and parricide, loses the power to make meaning when he loses his power to name Jocasta, their children, even himself in his relationship to them:
O marriage, marriage!
you bred me and again when you had bred
children of your child and showed to men
brides, wives and mothers and the foulest deeds
that can be in this world.
Come--it's unfit to say what is unfit to do. (70--71)
The naming of mother as mother, father as father, as that naming applies not to biology but to human family and human society, presumes a prohibition against incest. But those names are the building blocks of human language which is itself a condition of human culture and community (see LeviStrauss 31-96). Thus there exists a web of necessary ties between language and the taboo against incest, between the laws of the community and language, and, in consequence, between the incest taboo and the existence of human society. Without language-- human community's principal mode of communication--without the defining power of words, the bonds of the city, town, or tribe disintegrate. In recognizing his incest and parricide Oedipus becomes aware that he has lost the possibility of naming his parents. In nearly the same breath, he pronounces his loss of citizenship in the human community: "Drive me from here with all the speed you can / to where I may not hear a human voice" (72). His removal from the city is a public as well as a private necessity. From the first moment of the play it has been clear that, in direct consequence of Oedipus's private acts, the polity has been afflicted with a variety of ills, including a generalized malaise, plague, crop failure, and infertility. Oracles have proclaimed that Thebes will continue to sicken unless and until the individual scourge is expelled from the city.
In Dove's play there is a parallel involvement of incest, parricide, and language making with the private and public welfare. The institution of slavery, by denying marriage and family to the slave and by denying sexual affinity between slave and master, denies all in the society the power to name father, mother, sister, or brother with certainty and truth. The consequences of this ignorance are horrific. While Oedipus loses his ability to name his parents due to his incest and parricide, Augustus loses his power to recognize parricide and incest because he has been denied the freedom to know his parentage. Once more without the bonds of language, the public sphere suffers and cannot be sustained--a sickness eats away at both the individual's private pursuit of happiness and the very fabric of community.
Such refigurings of characters and themes from the Greek drama represent both an "alert and ready" listening to the original and an artistic transformation of it into a form more immediate and more vital for a contemporary audience. However, despite the direct references and obvious parallels to the ancient forerunner, it should be noted that The Darker Face of the Earth stands on its own without Oedipus the King. That is to say, unlike some transliterations of Greek drama, it is not a simple retelling in modern dress, nor is it principally "about" Oedipus. Rita Dove, in remarks to the actors during an early rehearsal session, distanced the play from Oedipus, saying that others, not she herself, had drawn the connections. She explained that the last thing she wanted was for audiences to come to the play seeking to trace all similarities and differences to the Greek myth (Notes to Cast, 7 June 1996). Indeed, to return to the language of Bakhtin, the drama is as compelling in the "dissonances [it] [ldots] stri ke[s]" as in its harmony with the original (277).
The interplay of private and public evils in Dove's play, as indicated above, reveals that an uncommon dynamic is at work. While incest and parricide figure significantly in the tragedy, it is miscegenation that cuts the deepest. Moreover, while in Oedipus the King individual abominations bring on the sickness in the community, in The Darker Face of the Earth the causality is reversed: Here the institution of slavery, a public abomination, is the source of the private horrors that follow from it. The white family in the "big house" (98) and the community of the black plantation slaves are tied together by more than a social hierarchy. They are in fact, "blood." The master and, in this case, the mistress as well have children in common with their so-called property. This sexual co-mingling and consequent genetic intermixing of the races and the social casts is the taboo subject of the slave-based society. When acknowledged, it must explode the very preconceptions of the social order. How can a human being own his or her children, brothers, sisters? Furthermore, and more perniciously, the very fact of miscegenation also explodes the basis of righteous rebellion, the slaves' rational hope for better life. In war the enemy must be other. For how can one, without losing the very ground of humanity, kill one's lover, much less one's own parent or sibling? As Augustus says when faced with just this horror, "If fear eats out the heart, / what does love do?" (114). These are the conundra of Greek tragedy, but refocused here, through the lens of slavery. And this lens not only refocuses the original, but also shifts the thematic emphasis and transfigures its meaning.
The most general sense of this difference is seen in the extension of the protagonist's role from a single noble hero, set against the community, to the community itself--from the one to the many.  In The Darker Face of the Earth the choral elements, for instance, take on aspects of heroism. The choral presence (the slave community, the Slave Woman/Narrator, the conspirators) is diversified, individualized, and celebrated. In fact the full interplay of various choral elements is at the heart of this drama, suggesting a spiritual dimension far surpassing the role of purveyor of common sense and folk wisdom ordinarily allotted the choruses in Greek tragedy. 
This shift in focus from the one to the many is related to a radical reconfiguration in the relationship of the dual notions of fate discussed above. In Oedipus the King fate as supernatural Destiny is associated with the Father's law (Pucci 9-10). Teiresias identifies himself as the spokesperson and the defender not only of fate and of the god Apollo, but also of the parents and their "curse": "A deadly footed, double striking curse, / from father and mother both, shall drive you forth" (28). Yet in some sense this curse of the parents springs ultimately from the "law of the father." Because it is the Father's law (the father as "a figure of logos" [Pucci 3]) that defines the mother by means of a taboo, the mother herself, not as biological but as social and human category, is begotten by the Father's law. On the other hand, the sense of fate as chance is more clearly identified by the text with the biological mother (Pucci 5), certainly with the earth and the body. Finally, however, all aspects, even the s eemingly random and accidental, are carried along in the larger horrific supernatural Destiny, the fate associated with Apollo and the father.
In Dove's play this dynamic is shifted. The sense of the divine is as much one of a maternal and feminine, as one of a paternal and masculine, force. The interpreter of this power, Scylla, is not a priest of Apollo but a voodon woman, in touch with the spirit world of African ancestors. Meanwhile, the more traditional figure of the patriarch is toppled. Louis, the plantation master, is structurally situated in the drama as both the representative and the interpreter of the father's power and, the father's law. Louis spends his nights "staring at the sky" (38), the traditional home of Father Zeus, the sky god, attempting by means of old charts and books to interpret the stars. Yet he is in fact a non-father, a sham patriarch. He has lost his authority to his wife, who "hiked up her skirts and pulled on man's boots," while he himself "took off his riding breeches" (38). Moreover Louis's efforts at divining the meaning of the stars and planets in their movements leads only to futility and frustration. As he lam ents, "no new coin shines / for Louis LaFarge / among the stars!" (81). In this way Dove's text "caps" not only Oedipus the King but the Western tragic tradition, "revers[ing] the received trope by displacement and substitution" (Gates, Signifying 145).
Moreover the role of protagonist is both challenged and distributed from the single male (Augustus) to three strongly depicted female characters who are, in turn, viewed against him and against each other. Amalia is the reverse photo-image counterpart of Augustus. Just as Augustus, a black man, raised "white" by his foster father, has been educated beyond his station and is an outsider among his own people, Amalia, a white Southern belle, raised "black" (as a child she had been allowed to "run wild"  with the children of her father's slave), has likewise received a double message: Caught between nature and artifice, she finds herself "more man than woman," unacceptable to both the slaves and her own people (34). Both Amalia and Augustus are strongwilled and rebellious. Yet, on an emotional level, both are deeply wounded: Augustus by the loss of his mother and the lack of home or center in his life, Amalia by the loss of her child.
Phebe, on the other hand, is Augustus's ideal soul mate: the partner he would or should have chosen in a better world, as she herself chooses him even in the tragic world of the play. A slave born and raised on the plantation, Phebe is emotionally strong, capable of deep love and loyalty, intellectually alive, and eager to learn. She is, as the playwright has suggested, "the emotional center of the play" (Notes to Cast, 8 June 1996). As such Phebe forms a sharp contrast to the emotional instability of both Augustus and Amalia. But while Phebe's character is whole and strong, her world and thus her chances for a happy life are as impaired as theirs are by the institution of slavery.
The third female character to vie with Augustus for central interest in the play is the "conjure woman" Scylla (60). From Augustus's first day on the plantation, these two have recognized each other as natural enemies. Augustus is the self-proclaimed savior of his people. He reasons clearly that their only possible means of achieving freedom is outright rebellion. Moreover he has the rhetorical and organizational skill, the nothing-to-lose courage, and the deeply ingrained sense of injustice that make him a seemingly ideal instrument to lead such a rebellion. Yet ironically he is, of all the African slaves, the one farthest removed from both his African heritage and his fellow slaves. Not only is his birth mother white, but he was raised by an English sea captain, educated in the European tradition, and, on the grounds of that tradition, rejects the native religion and spirit world which the Africans have brought with them. In contrast Scylla is closely aligned with Africanisms, albeit in an alienated form.
From the first Scylla's spiritual powers enable her to Intuit if not articulate the unresolved dynamics of Augustus's character. She refuses to trust his promises of salvation. He, for his part, debunks the all-too-obvious scare techniques of this "hateful woman." Since her own wisdom and authority are compromised by her use of crude "mumble jumble" (60) and since she seems to lack the courage to support her people in their fight for freedom, audiences will be drawn to identify with Augustus's, disgust. Yet Augustus's, own blindness to deeper powers, even as they shape the movements of his life, suggests that Scylla may be at least partly in touch with verities much deeper than those he is willing to recognize.
An Africanist Vision
Scylla's vision is associated in the drama, and resonates with, three deep strengths: the earth, the feminine, and the spiritual values of an African belief system. Her conjurations are clearly earth-centered. She places earth objects--bones, twisted roots, a branch, a round white stone--on a makeshift altar and proceeds to invoke the spirits with words pointing to a physical reality: "The body moves through the world. / The mind rests in the body" (53). And in her admonishments Scylla's message and warning are to value the earth and the body, especially as the conduit to the soul or spirit. She indicts Phebe with having "tried to make the earth / give up her dead" (54). And she cautions her to "guard your footsteps; / they are your mark on the Earth" (56). Later in confronting Augustus she attempts to reconnect him with the physical, saying, "You are in your skin wherever you go" (135).
In a like manner, Scylla is aligned with feminine forces. Augustus's birth has brought a curse "over the land." Scylla. able to feel the living baby's kick in her own womb, is one of those stricken directly. Later she explains that, as her womb "dried up," she gained her "powers," second-sight to fathom the curse. Indeed the power that "churned" in her at the time of the birth (37), and continues to churn in her, is a supplanted maternal power. Though Scylla is bent, harsh, and angry, the source of her rage is not vindictive. In laying charges against Augustus she locates that source, not in envy of him or in a will to dominate, but in her care for her people:
these people do with your hate
after you free them-as you promise? (134)
Thus Scylla exhibits two aspects. She is both frightening and irrational, gentle and protective. In this she may seem to reproduce a well-worn binary stereotype of maternal or feminine nature: the two sides of feminine power represented, for example, by the Furies/Eumenides of Aeschylus's Oresteia.  Their unleashed maternal rage must be contained and soothed by law before civil society can thrive. Once the Furies have been tamed to become Eumenides, their gentle beneficence is recovered to protect and nurture the community. In The Darker Face of the Earth a related but none the less very different pattern of interaction is at work. Maternal fury will not be separated off and quieted for use. Compassion and rage are inseparable. Compassion is not a weakened, pale version of rage but the source and wellspring of both maternal fury and the prospering community.
The third element allied to Scylla is one closely related to the other two. By attempting to recreate the rites and rituals of the Yoruba spiritual tradition, Scylla provides a link for the slaves to their African roots. While Scylla herself has no command of an African language, she regularly threads Yoruba words and phrases into her incantations and laments. Her only direct tie to Africa is through Hector, who was captured and brought as a child from Africa. And although Hector himself has only a distant memory of the original homeland, he provides Scylla with an authentic connection to it. Fittingly, then, it is in Hector's funeral scene where Scylla's authority becomes most clearly manifest and, moreover, where the power of an Africanist vision and sensibility is revealed most clearly.
The scene begins with a procession of slaves, carrying the body of Hector, singing a version of an early African American Spiritual. The song itself is among those in the Spiritual tradition for which scholars have established links to African musical roots :
Oh Deat' him is a little man,
And him goes from do' to do',
Him kill some souls and him cripple up,
And him' some souls to pray.
Do Lord, remember me,
Do Lord, remember me.
I cry to the Lord as de year roll aroun',
Lord, remember me. (131)
Hector is mourned for his individual suffering and loss, especially since he has "no children, and his kinfolk / scattered around this world" (131). But the scene as a whole is structured around the funeral ritual of "passing," in which "the youngest child of the deceased is passed under and over the coffin to signify the continuity of life" (132). This ritual illustrates an "Afrocentric orientation [which] conceptualizes time in a cyclic fashion [ldots] assum[ing] that the appearance of [a] phenomenon always changes, but that the underlying essence of [the] phenomenon remains basically unchanged" (Harris 157). In the funeral portrayed here, a larger sense of time with its cycles of birth and death does indeed enfoldand absorb the pains of life. In this particular instance, the distinctly non-European customs and musical elements both emphasize and honor the community's African roots.
During the funeral the slaves join together to support and encourage each other, putting aside their differences in the harmony of community. Hector's bizarre life and apparent incoherence are reinterpreted and reclaimed in compassion:
All those years folks thought
he was crazy [ldots]
when he was just sick at heart. (133)
Augustus's entrance threatens to disrupt this communal harmony. Though one member of the group, Scipio, attempts to forgive his lack of participation and solidarity ("Each soul grieves in its own way" ), a hostile encounter appears about to erupt. Scylla challenges Augustus with, "You believe you can cure the spirit / just by riling it" (134). However, Augustus, sick at heart, refuses to rise to her challenge. And Scylla, seeming to sense the depth of his pain, moves from a spirit of bitterness to one of compassion. Thus, even in this potentially belligerent exchange, the harmony and unity of the funeral spirit mute their ordinary pitched animosity, and the two come closer to a meeting of the minds than at any other point in the drama. Scylla's next words lament the inevitability of Augustus's errors as much as they blame him:
you, Augustus Newcastle?
But do you know what's inside
The seeds of the future; they'll have their way. (135)
As the focus shifts back to the funeral, Scylla begins to weave Yoruba expressions into the lamentations:
Who can I talk to about his journey?
He stood tall, so they bent his back.
He found love, so they ate his heart
Eshu Elewa ogo gbogbo!
Eshu Elewa ogo gbogbo!
Where are the old words now?
Scattered by the wind. (135-36)
Hearing these expressions the audience is, as it were, invited to read the scene informed by an Africanist perspective. In the 1994 version of the play, Yoruba phrases occur only in Scylla's conjuration scenes. By adding them to Hector's vocabulary, to Augustus's increasingly conflicted internal monologues, to the chanting choral motif of the "Dream Sequence" which begins Act II, and especially to the funeral scene, Dove reveals and validates an African context.  This context was underscored in the OSF production by African elements referenced in Richard L. Hay's stage design and by a dancer in African-style mask woven into much of the action, variously suggesting the spirit world of the ancestors, a prophetic impulse, and the sense of holistic community. In addition, and most emphatically, the key positioning and the ongoing percussive pulse of the accompanying drummers proclaimed the African context.
The prominence of the Yoruba invocation in the funeral scene is critical. When such words have been spoken before, they were heard against a non-African background, in broken and debased circumstances. Scylla's rituals were scorned as mere "mumble jumble" and Hector's allusive, running train of consciousness was misunderstood as insanity. The funeral, on the other hand, gives the African words the dignity of context. This evocative context allows a "reader" to hear in them the African cultural values and strengths of the slave community, to see the beauty of the sensibilities and the originality of African culture in its own terms, and not to judge it against a European template of values.
Reader as Creative Writer
While the audience learns to read in this Africanist tongue, Amalia and Augustus continue in a struggle to read each other. Augustus, torn between his need for love and his class-based suspicions of "Missy," is unsure of his interpretation of her. Amalia is more comfortable with her reading of him, though she must shroud and deny the present reality in favor of fantasy. Hers is a reading that allows for an authentic present, but only in terms of a fairytale version of history. Amalia's reading of Augustus is a reading grounded in the decoding of his body: an erotic reading of the scars which are inscribed on him like letters, symbols, or pictures. On Augustus's back are the traces of innumerable whippings at the hands of his former owners, which Amalia expressly identifies with the signs of a written text:
Your back is like a book
no one can bear to read to the end [ldots]
each angry gash, each proud welt .[ldots]
On his side are other scars, marks which record the violent circumstances of his birth and which, unbeknownst to either, tie them together in the web of the curse. Amalia attempts to read these as well:
[ldots] these scars on your side are differ
(touching them gently)
They couldn't have come from a whipping.
They're more like--more like
markings that turn up in fairy tales
of princes and paupers exchanged at
Amalia continues to meditate on these marks, calling them "magical" and comparing them to "crowns" or "exploding suns," while Augustus pleads, "No more stories" (129-30).
This reading of scars illustrates a transaction that goes beyond the sense of interpretation as go-between. Founded on eros, it is a "reading into" which, while it may falter in accuracy, never abandons the text as the source. The love Amalia has for Augustus releases her powers of intuition. She is able to intuit both the pain of Augustus's wounds in servitude and the mystery and power of his other scars. Furthermore, Amalia intuits the meaning of the difference. Her reading only fails in that it refuses to address or accommodate harsh realities. It fails in what Morrison has termed "responsability," that quality of reading which is imbued with both the skill and the obligation to respond.
Such an image of reading, based on the heightened sensitivity of an erotic connection, suggests the general power of reading with feeling, with the heart/mind rather than the mind alone.  Any such reading is not merely a reading, it becomes itself poetry, in the root sense of the word poesis, 'a making.' It is, then, as much "writing" as reading, for reading into leads to the creation of a new object, not merely an expounding upon or explication of the old. Any strong engagement of the feelings, of the heart, can serve to lift reading to this status, though the results will certainly vary according to the specific emotion. Rage, for example, endows the reader with a hypersensitivity to any subtext that would compromise or enslave. Out of the poetics of rage the reader is able to structure a new text based on an action: in this case the struggle between him-or herself and the imposing old text. The reading is that struggle--or rather the reading makes or "writes" the struggle. But the type of reading exem plified by The Darker Face of the Earth is a reading based on more positive powers than rage. It is true that the drama reads Oedipus with a degree of suspicion born of a female and African otherness, and traces a struggle based on this perspective. Moreover, it is a parodic reading which "problematizes" and "denaturalizes" the salient assumptions of the original (Hutcheon 94). In addition, however, it reads Oedipus with (to use Morrison's terms once again) an "alert and ready" eye and an ear tuned to the poetic genius of the Greek play. It finds in Oedipus the traces and rich complexity, the mysterious scars, so to speak, of an unresolved dynamic. Reading both the prevailing narrative and those undercurrents of difference, Dove's play interprets the old and creates it anew.
Notwithstanding the discernment and sensitivity of this reading of the Greek drama, The Darker Face of the Earth is primarily concerned with the historical fact of slavery. But this too is a reading, a reading in that fullest and most inclusive sense, through compassion and "into" the wounds and scars of that history. The power of such a reading was pointedly illustrated during one of the rehearsals of the Ashland production. The walls of the rehearsal hall had been pinned with many old photographs of slaves: individuals and families from the era before the Civil War. This being the final rehearsal in the hall before moving to the theatre itself, the director asked that the cast and others present take a few minutes to select one individual from the pictures to hold firmly in mind. He then gathered all together and invited each one to carry the memory and thought of that individual with him or her into the theatre and into all the performances of the play (Notes to Cast, 21 July 1996). No one who contemplate d those photographs could miss the beauty, strength, and thoughtfulness of the faces that looked out from them. But no one could miss, either, the horror of the loss for all those individuals: the loss of freedom--an untapped potential for goodness and happiness wasted.
This experience resonated significantly with a comment Dove had made to the cast on the first day of rehearsal. In discussing the meaning of tragedy and her interest in the genre, she had explained that Greek theater is a place where "stunted lives are redeemed" (Notes to Cast, 6 June 1996). Clearly for lives lived in slavery, no matter what the redresses of the present or hopes for the future, the injustice has been done, the loss for those historical individuals is absolute and unredeemable. For those in the present, however, just as for the community of mourners at Hector's funeral, a compassionate but unflinchingly honest reading--an Africanist reading--of suffering soothes and heals the loss. And, since the loss is inscribed on the hearts of the mourners, it is in some sense finally not absolute, but regenerative and redemptive. Rita Dove's poetic tragedy proves an exemplar of such transformative reading--imaginative, deeply compassionate, electric with erotic power, and unflinching in its honesty.
Theodora Carlisle is Associate Professor in the Integral Liberal Arts Curriculum and Director of the Collegiate Seminar Program at Saint Mary's College, Moraga, California. She is currently investigating contemporary adaptations of Greek drama. Professor Carlisle wishes to acknowledge the Saint Mary's College Faculty Development Fund, which supported her work on this article.
(1.) The play opened on July 27,1996, in Ashland, Oregon, at the Angus Bowmer Theatre, following a seven-week rehearsal period. A subsequent production jointly engaged by Crossroads Theatre Company and The Kennedy Center for the Arts and also directed by Ricardo Kahn opened in October 1997 at the Crossroads Theater in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and in November 1997 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
I wish to thank the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for granting me an Observership to attend the rehearsals of the original production. I would also like to acknowledge and express my debt to my colleague from Saint Mary's College, theatre director and professor of theatre Rebecca Engle, who had likewise been granted an Observership from OSF. Numerous conversations with Rebecca Engle have informed and enriched the views expressed in these remarks. Several interviews with the playwright, musical director, and cast members were undertaken jointly, though none is directly cited in this essay.
(2.) Tejumola Olaniyan quotes both Cruse and Gates, as well as others, in his examination of the "dilemma" as it has been disclosed in African-American literary theory. The terms can, of course, be extended to other areas, including the theatre arts and literature itself.
(3.) The 1996 edition of The Darker Face of the Earth was essentially that used as the script for the OSF production. An earlier edition of the play, published by Story Line Press in 1994, had been developed and revised following a workshop production at OSF in August 1994 and several subsequent staged readings of the play. Aside from providing motivation and a fuller and more sympathetic drawing of several characters (most notably of Amalia, the plantation mistress), the revised play more clearly discloses the Africanist core of the drama.
(4.) For example, Jacques Derrida, in Writing and Difference, explores speech and writing as a binary pair and seeks to reevaluate the hitherto accepted primacy or immediacy of speech in favor of writing as the more original category.
(5.) I am taking the liberty of appropriating Bahktin's terminology despite the fact that he clearly identifies drama as necessarily monologic (see Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics 17, for example). Helene Keyssar confronts Bakhtin's "denouncement" in light of her own experience of "performed drama" as a genre "whose natural condition is [ldots] dialogism" (88-89). Acknowledging the complexity of the questions raised, Keyssar refrains from offering any final response to them. Instead she explores two contemporary plays to assay the particular status of each, as either monologic or dialogic. On her way to this comparison she offers her own list of "arguably dialogic" modern dramas, a list, as she affirms, "heavily weighted [ldots] by selections from black American dramas and feminist dramas" (94-95).
In connection to Keyssar's observation, it is of interest to note that Mae Gwendolyn Henderson points to the "interlocutory, or dialogic, character" as a distinguishing feature of black women's writing (of various genres). According to Henderson such writings reflect not only a dialogic "relationship with 'other(s),' but an internal dialogue with the plural aspects of self that constitute the matrix of black female subjectivity" (18).
(6.) It should be noted that Gates is here looking at the African-American tradition and the use of "Capping" exclusively within that tradition, not "revisions" of European texts by black authors.
(7.) Steven Mailloux traces interpretation to the Latin noun interpres meaning, according to The Oxford Latin Dictionary, "an intermediary, agent, [or] go-between" (121).
(8.) See, for example, theatre reviews chronicled by Karelisa V. Hartigan. From the turn of the century to the present, comments such as "timely," "contemporary," "as if the character had just been created," and "ripped from yesterday's headlines" (16-87) reflect an ongoing response of viewers and critics to successful revivals and adaptations of ancient Greek tragedy.
(9.) As Wendell V. Harris has remarked "Hermeneutics is [ldots] one of those words that has been pressed into such various service over time that one can hardly use it without attaching an immediate explanatory gloss" (12). In this instance of its use, Shaffer, by pointing to the time-honored practice of adaptation and revival in drama as a means of rehabilitating ancient canonical works for new audiences, has invoked the hermeneutics explicated by Hans-Georg Gadamer. For Gadamer "the hermeneutical experience is concerned with what has been transmitted in tradition" (321). It is a process in which the reader must "be able to listen to the past in a way that enables it [the past] to make its own meaning clear" and in which "understanding is possible only if one forgets oneself" (299), but also in which the reader "belongs to the text he is reading" and in which future generations will understand differently what he has read in the text" (304). Gadamer suggests that both the past and the present stand as "hori zons" which the interpreter must "fuse" in order to achieve "understanding" (273ff). This understanding can only occur if the interpreter and the object to be interpreted are part of a shared tradition, one to which the interpreter assigns a certain authority. Such views have led several of Gadamer's critics to challenge his embrace of tradition. Jurgens Habermas, for example, in opposition to Gadamer, indicates the proper function of the "reflected appropriation of tradition" to be that of "break[ing] up the nature-like [ldots] substance of tradition" (236). Others ask "what or whose tradition" Gadamer has invoked and fault him for failing to probe the problem of ideology inherent in the interpretive act (see, for example, Eagleton 72-73). These challenges and the responses they provoke are, in fact, the very elements that constitute the hermeneutical inquiry. Other related issues in this continuing inquiry focus on the autonomy of the text, on the linguistically determined subject, and on the importance of authorial intentionality. Such questions are far from closed. For me, the ongoing nature of this discussion points to the very dialectical quality of the interpretive act--one which both critiques and serves its text, assigns unqualified significance to and ever-present skepticism regarding the intentions of the author, is constituted of language (exists only within language), yet strives to escape the framework in which it is bound. Like Kantian antinomies, or the Heisenberg uncertainty principle of quantum physics, hermeneutics is a field in which whenever we press too far in one direction we find ourselves face-to-face with an opposing reality. For this reason a work of art, as the expression which can most eloquently encompass such dialects, is a particularly apt means for accomplishing the interpretive act.
(10.) Heroes of Greek tragedy are invariably highborn and set apart from the ordinary people by their power and wealth. In his Poetics Aristotle makes a tacit assumption that this will and should be the case for the genre. For Aristotle, as Gerald Else remarks, the protagonist is "not only heroic but a man of conspicuous rank and prosperity" (458).
(11.) According to Maurice Valency, "the chorus often plays the part of [ldots] commentator but is seldom the source of wisdom" (125). In contrast to the highborn tragic hero, the chorus represents the demos. Indeed the earliest choruses would have been composed of amateur contestants drawn from the ten tribes or demes of Athens.
(12.) Tamu Gray, who portrayed Scylla in the OSF production, drew this connection between her role and the Furies of Aeschylus. She recalled her intense experience, while attending a performance in 1984 of the Theatre du Soleil's production of Les Atrides, of the particular moment when the Furies are "tamed." For Tamu Gray this transformation brought a deep sense of "sadness and loss" (Gray interview).
(13.) Recent scholarship exploring the roots of the Negro Spiritual tradition has uncovered a deep source of this tradition in West African music and culture (Maultsby 185). For the OSF production, it was an explicit objective of both director Ricardo Khan and music director Olu Dara, strongly supported as well by playwright Dove, that the songs which formed an essential component of The Darker Face of the Earth eschew the familiar, popularized versions of spiritual music in favor of a more authentic, original style, with closer connections to an African musical legacy (Notes to Cast, 12 June 1996).
(14.) Throughout the rehearsal period of the OSF production, percussionist Craig "Simbu" Goodmond proved a valuable resource to the cast. With an extensive knowledge of the orisha deities, he was able to draw connections to both the Greek pantheon and the characters of the play (Comments to Cast, June 1996). Interviewed prior to the opening, Rita Dove acknowledged the value of Simbu's contributions. For her part, as she explained, she had avoided doing active research in this area during the writing of The Darker Face of the Earth, preferring to trust to the authenticity of the images for their links to spiritual realities. Significantly, however, while working on revisions of the play, she had simultaneously been working on certain poems for her collection Mother Love and had, in this connection, been tracing the roots of the Greek goddesses Persephone and Demeter to their counterparts in sub-Saharan Africa (Dove Interview).
(15.) Martha C. Nussbaum asks what sort of writing is appropriate to "love's knowledge"; that is, to "the search for truth" (4). Her response requires that we take note of the cognitive dimension" (41) of the emotions and what she describes as the "ability of love to illuminate" (44).
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